Educators are not ok. The quiet burden they are carrying as the pandemic enters its third year.
In preparing to write this article, I had visions of compelling interviews with numerous educators who bravely rolled up their sleeves and pushed through their fears to work during the pandemic. I thought I’d be bombarded with authentic experiences about what it has really been like to balance life in the classroom and life at home during one of the most surreal and stressful times in decades.
That didn’t happen.
Despite data showing that people are leaving the profession in droves, I found few educators who were comfortable enough to talk about their feelings openly with a reporter, let alone go on the record about them. Some felt they would be judged for bemoaning a job they truly love. Others felt the topic was too personal. Some just didn’t respond; that alone spoke volumes. The emerging stigmatization of pandemic burnout seems to have resulted in a silent struggle that many educators do not want to talk about publicly.
One North Salem resident, however, did agree to discuss her experiences, albeit anonymously. She is a Spanish teacher in a Title I New York City school district, and she offered a unique perspective on teaching an underserved population during a pandemic. Title I schools receive funding to support academic achievement for low-income students. “I felt like I could never do enough for them,” she said of her 8th graders. “I couldn't physically see them, so I never really knew if they were okay. I decided to do a virtual mood meter in Spanish at the beginning of every class in the private comments, so it was only shared with me.”
She went on to talk about the impact of remote learning and how living conditions in her students’ homes were unexpectedly exposed. “I would make sure to be extra animated when meeting their siblings or their pets, but I was also worried about how they would complete their assignments.” She asked her students to keep their cameras on, only if they felt comfortable doing so, because as she said, “some were embarrassed about their home environments.” During the holiday breaks she found herself wondering whether her students were managing. "I just felt powerless and desperate to help.” She added, “the silence was deafening at times. There was no feedback for lessons that took hours to create. You can’t verify what they’re learning or not learning. It feels like you're teaching to a black hole.”
To complicate things, many of her students had caregivers who died from coronavirus. Others had parents who had so much to manage, they never knew whether or not their child had logged in to class. She was not able to check for understanding, or pronunciation, or show them wonderful delicacies from Latin culture. “In person, I could bring in things for them to see, taste, and smell. Remote learning made that impossible.”
She talked about the personal toll, as well. “I felt isolated, and I know my students did, too. I chose to work with an immigrant population because I know that one step out of their situation is a step in the right direction. But I felt like I was letting them down.” She talked about feeling sad that she was unable to meet several of her students in person until the day they graduated. But, her drive to continue teaching remained steadfast. “I don’t sleep a lot,” she said. “I chose to be a teacher after being an investment banker because I believe language and culture are the future of our kids.” She acknowledges that some friends and acquaintances left the teaching profession in the past two years for ‘greener pastures.’ “I knew many people who had considered leaving the field pre-pandemic,” she said. “This has driven them over the edge.”
This teacher and her colleagues are not alone. As we approach our third year of the pandemic, and fears of new coronavirus variants continue to grow, educators are feeling strained. Staff shortages, extreme workload demands, and ever-changing coronavirus safety protocols are just a few factors affecting the mental health and well-being of school personnel. Not to mention the ongoing stress of navigating digital equity, TikTok challenges, and the unrelenting threat of active shooter situations. A Rand study done in January 2021 showed that nearly 25% of teachers surveyed were considering leaving their jobs at the end of the school year–a rate that is up nearly 10% nationally from pre-pandemic times. [i]
“It feels like we're building the plane while we're flying it, and the destination keeps changing on us”, says Heidi Crumine, a high school English teacher in New Hampshire, as she describes what school has been like for her during the pandemic.[ii] Burnout is typically defined as a temporary condition in which a person “has exhausted the personal and professional resources necessary to do the job.” Much like compassion fatigue, which mental health providers often struggle with, burnout isn’t just about simply reducing stress. It requires a comprehensive plan to help people refocus on balance and wellness - not an easy task in the Covid era. But, while individual resilience is often blamed, other factors, such as lack of organizational resources and support, must be considered. Educators are being encouraged to employ more self-care practices. But, they are doing so much to help students that they don’t have the time or energy to engage in activities that are necessary to replenish themselves. The result is exhaustion, demoralization, and less certainty that they will stay in the field.
Over the past 18 months, the link between burnout and staff retention has become increasingly clear. Avoiding the ‘teacher turnover cliff’ has forced school leaders to look at what’s wrong with the educational system and consider putting real structural changes in place, rather than temporary solutions to Band-Aid problems. Educators are more likely to remain in their profession when they feel supported. According to Doris Santoro, professor of education at Bowdoin College, this takes much more than just “one-day trainings, free chair massages, breathing exercises, and Casual Fridays.” Santoro believes school leaders should be asking the right questions. “This is about support and autonomy," she says. “They should be asking educators, 'what is the most time-consuming part of your job, what tasks aren't as important, and what are the systems that we can put in place so you can do the work that you think matters most?’” [iii]
Unfortunately, many educators feel pressure to remain cheerful in the face of recent challenges. Some schools have taken the stance that staff should bottle their feelings, stay silent, and pretend that everything is fine. The term ‘toxic positivity’ is now flooding the internet, including on social media and in educational journals. But, putting on a happy face only masks the real turmoil many educators are feeling inside. It’s exhausting. And damaging. One teacher is reported to have said, “It’s a kind of philosophy of denial, where nothing is ever really going wrong, and where the power of positive thinking can be used to invalidate any criticism or concern, no matter how legitimate.” [iv]
In an article titled Toxic Positivity Has No Place in Schools, Cherisse Campbell states, “our pre-pandemic professional tools weren’t built for this challenge, nor were our minds and bodies…The intervention to address this stress is not simply positivity and a can-do attitude.” The idea of trying to provide normal schooling under conditions that are anything but normal is just not sustainable. Educators have become temporary grief counselors, social workers, and adjunct caregivers to students who have lost family members or who are having difficulty coping. [v] They are doing all of this out of concern for kids, but at a cost to their own well-being. Educators do not take any vows when they enter the profession, but there is no doubt that for most it was a calling. “We signed up for an unrequited love for which we give every piece of our being to elevate the hearts and minds of the students and families we serve.” [vi] As a result of the pandemic, many educators are struggling, and toxic positivity just adds to their trauma.
Here in North Salem, educators are not shielded from pandemic stress. In a candid interview with Vincent DiGrandi, principal of North Salem MSHS, he shared many of his own insights about why educators are feeling burned out and how he has managed his role, both personally and professionally. “The summer of 2020 was the hardest work I’ve ever done in education,” he said. “We read everything and talked daily. Each decision required constant analysis. We consumed as much information as we could, but it required tremendous emotional and mental weight lifting.”
DiGrandi talked about what it was like not having any sense of control over how school would appear from week to week. “We would get the dreaded Friday memo from the State,” he said. “Then we had to decipher it and put that into some sort of plan for staff. We also had to deal with our own losses from Covid, and we needed to be authentic and not pretend everything was okay. People were, and are, hurting.”
He also cited the change in instructional environment and challenges with the facilities as major stress factors, from the shift in technology to ensuring the HVAC systems were equipped to filter in as much clean air as possible. “We had several new software platforms and we had to make sure the Wi-Fi was up consistently. We were forced to use technology in ways we weren’t used to,” he said. “What some people also don’t understand is there aren’t many new school buildings and they aren’t built to be energy reliant.”
DiGrandi spoke openly about how the pandemic, along with current events, has impacted him. “We knew we were going to get through this, but there was going to be a cost,” he said. “My job is not particularly physical, but I would come home emotionally drained and just pass out.” He continued, “there will always be civil discourse and differences of opinions, but things are so polarized now in schools across the nation. I hope the political landscape calms, but in the meantime, you have to be compassionate and empathetic. Everything now is more emotional, tiring, and heightened,” he said. “I drive 55 MPH to school to remind myself to go slower. It’s part of my own self-care. I’ve had some really tough decisions to make and doing things in a purposeful way has benefitted me more than anything else. I try to say to myself ‘what would I want my kids’ principal to do in this situation?’”
When asked what school leaders can do to help teachers, DiGrandi said, “we’re in it with them. My job as an administrator is to insulate teachers from the minutiae so they can just teach.” He added, “we’ve changed our faculty meetings so the teachers have time built in to be together and collaborate. We talk about mental health a lot and people are realizing that self-care is essential. On a Friday at 2:10 the parking lot is empty, and I’m thankful for that because I know the staff is going home to be with their families, and yet they are still bringing the same enthusiasm and creativity to work when they’re here.”
Masks. Social distancing. Air filtration. Virtual learning. Nothing prepared schools to navigate these challenges, and educators are halfway through another year of uncertainty, with a recent spike in coronavirus infections and restrictions being reinstated. “I applaud the unbelievable flex and grit of what educators have done during this time,” DiGrandi said. When asked what he believes he and his colleagues need more than anything, he simply said, “Grace. We need grace.”
Elizabeth Malvino, LCSW is a graduate of Skidmore College and Fordham University. She is an executive function coach for Beyond BookSmart where she helps people of all ages understand their ADHD differences and learn strategies to build their confidence. She also has an interest in how school schedules affect the physiological and emotional health of adolescents, and she manages the Northern Westchester County chapter of Start School Later, Inc, a national organization which educates districts about how later start times can improve the lives of students. https://www.startschoollater.net/ny---northern-westchester.html